Four Classes

At the beginning of the summer, I was looking for a book of fairy tales to read, ideally one that included stories on which no Disney film has been based. I found Gertrude Landa’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, and I was enchanted.

This collection is charmingly fanciful, and at times playfully absurd. It is, moreover, unique in the different flavors of fairy tale it offers. The book is admirably broad-minded in its inspiration, drawing from Scripture and history and legend. I am going to briefly sum up the four classes of fairy tale in this book, prefaced by two observations. One of these is positive, and the other less so.

One, the book is unusually effective in merging religion with stories. I have tried to cipher out why the book succeeds as it does, and I think the fairy-tale form has a great deal to do with it. As fairy tales, these stories shrug off the burdens of detail and solemnity. They respect religion, yet treat it with lightness and frankness. This is certainly not the only way to treat religion, and probably not the best way, but it is an enjoyable way. Now, the second and negative observation: There is moral dissonance in the casual acceptance of slavery sometimes glimpsed in this book. It’s jarring, and in the most flagrant instance downright chilling.

And onto the four classes:

Secular. Although most of the fairy tales in this collection are religious to some degree, a minority makes nothing of religion, one way or another. Among these are some of the more lackluster offerings, such as “The Red Slipper” and “Abi Fressah’s Feast”. But this minority also includes the superior “The Princess in the Tower”, which is at once the most democratic and most effectively humorous tale in the collection.

Biblical. I use here a narrow definition to cover only those stories directly based on biblical narrative. Of course, directly based can still be loosely based, as many a Hollywood film has demonstrated. These are not Sunday-school stories. They only involve Sunday-school characters, drawing them out from the Bible and into a world of fancy. Thus Pharaoh suffers somewhat whimsically in “The Higgledy-Piggledy Palace” and David rides a unicorn in “From Shepherd-Boy to King”. Minor figures in Scripture are granted starring roles, though not to any glory. In “The Paradise in the Sea”, Hiram grows convinced of his own immortality – and deity.

Religious. Truthfully, most of the book could come under this heading. I use it in order to group the fairy tales that invoke religion without pirating the Bible. A representative example of this is the prophesying rabbi of “King for Three Days”. “The Rabbi’s Bogey-Man” is a more compelling instance, and the most imaginative is found in the synagogue in the heart of Ergetz, the land of demons, djinns, and fairies – for, it is explained, they also have all manner of religions. This tale, “The Fairy Princess of Ergetz”, is the best in the category and possibly the best in the book. In all these stories, there is no self-consciousness about religion, no sense of argument or defense. It simply is, like the sky.

Historical. A handful of the fairy tales play out in quasi-historical settings. “The Palace in the Clouds” occurs somewhat vaguely in Assyria; “The Pope’s Game of Chess” occurs much more definitely in Germany. But not too definitely. These are still fairy tales, and history is a source of invention rather than strict facts. “King Alexander’s Adventures” is the most striking example of the historical fairy tale, not least because in it, history so dizzingly meets religion and myth.

A Few Highlights

So you all know about Lorehaven, right? Great.

I began writing reviews for Lorehaven about two years ago. Lorehaven reviews are most often short, no more than 150 words, and their purpose is to help you know whether the book in question is the sort of thing you would like. Whether it is the sort of thing we would like is not of great interest. The necessary brevity, together with the desired objectivity, encourages a straightforward treatment: summary, strengths, weaknesses, conclusion – and no more than two or three sentences for each.

But I’ve been reflecting on the books I have had the opportunity to read and the privilege to review. I am going to highlight just a few, those that remain most vivid in my mind after the time that has passed. A couple of these overlap with genres, or subgenres, I don’t normally favor. This demonstrates that although the disadvantage of assigned books is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself, the advantage is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself.

The Red Rider, by Randall Allen Dunn. I am going to state right at the beginning that this one was too strong for my tastes. Yet it was striking, and memorable even after two years. This comes, I think, from three qualities: one, its perfect meshing of the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood with the legend of werewolves; two, its dark, dreamlike atmosphere – as if it is taking place not in our world but a worse version of it; three, the almost bizarre appropriateness of its horror elements. “Little Red Riding Hood” always was ghastly, you know.

Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, by S.E.M. Ishida. This brief novel is, technically, for children, and I won’t be backward in admitting that it matches its intended readers with a certain simplicity. But it is colorful and creative and utterly charming. Even the simplicity is played into a virtue. This world of robots and whimsy would not be nearly as much as fun if we had to enter it with the deadly seriousness of adults.

Journey Into Legend, by Henry Schreiner. This one is a throwback, and not only because it contains college students who write actual letters. The narrative – presented through diaries, letters, and other documents, its fantastical element fortified with science – is reminiscent of the great Victorian-era forays into science fiction. It’s magical realism, old-school.

Launch, by Jason Joyner. Have you ever noticed that if you squint, certain biblical figures – say, Elijah or Samson – might be superheroes, only with more religion and less spandex? This novel takes that idea out for a spin and proves it to be a lot of fun. It is also strikingly successful in creating, without artificiality or strain, the youthful, contemporaneous world of its teenage protagonists.

To Ashes We Run, by Just B. Jordan. The two greatest strengths of this novel – and you should understand that by greatest strengths, I mean the things that most appealed to me personally – are the world-building and the characters. I always find special appeal in fantasy worlds that can combine genuine mythos with a realistic consideration of politics and culture. I find even more appeal in any novel that feels, and causes me to feel, the lives and personalities of its characters.

A Vulnerable Technique

When you had to write in school, you were probably placed under certain all-encompassing bans. “Never use the first-person” is a perennial favorite among teachers. I once had a respected professor who instructed students not to use semicolons. Now, the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark and has been put to many venerable uses. I believe my old professor banned it because so many people were prone to use it badly it was better that no one use it at all.

Many of the “Nevers” in writing are drawn up along a similar principle: Almost nobody does it right, so nobody should do it. Adjectives are an oft-targeted victim of this kind of reasoning. Another technique vulnerable to it is flashbacks, our topic of the day. Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward. They are written like narrative, but they are not narrative. Flashbacks disrupt the story, breaking up the flow and momentum of events to reprise old news. I have seen them done well, but I have also seen them done with extraordinary badness. Not all authors appreciate the nature or the purpose of the technique.

Two rules may be applied to the use of flashbacks. First, flashbacks must be relevant. A good way to think of this is that flashbacks must be revelatory of the story and not of the characters. What ought to be revealed of your characters can be revealed through the narrative proper: through their present talk, actions, thoughts. You might have constructed an entirely fascinating backstory, but you are telling a different story. Your story is in the present. The past throws light on the present, but the present throws light on people. There is no need of flashbacks to tell us about your characters.

Once I read a sci-fi novel that made excellent use of flashbacks. Very brief chapters, sprinkled among the narrative and set apart by italics, gave snapshots of the past. But these snapshots were keys to the story. They explained the nature of the present struggle, put forward mystery, foreshadowed the final revelation of villainy. Like all good flashbacks, they were dedicated to the story.

The second rule is that flashbacks must be brief. Again, flashbacks break the flow of the story, and for that reason they must be employed sparingly. Even if the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, people will become frustrated and impatient if the story is continually interrupted for field trips to the past. Flashbacks can spice up a story, but they should never be a main ingredient. Neither are they, in prodigious measure, likely to be altogether relevant. In the rare event that a prodigious measure is necessary, it is possible that you are starting the story in the wrong place.

The things people warn you about when you write fiction can generally be done. They just have to be done carefully. Flashbacks have been used to great effect, and you should always feel free to use them yourself. Only remember that they break the narrative and so must be very relevant and always brief.

Once Upon a Future Time

Full of far off worlds and wonders close at home.

They’ll span the breadth of space and time.

The Kickstarter for Once Upon a Future Time, Vol. 2 has opened! This anthology contains eleven authors and over 400 pages of classic fairy tales retold as science fiction. Among the rest is my own “Jack and I,” a re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Drop on by to learn more and join the cause!

‘Hidden Histories’ Is Out!

Hidden Histories is out! This anthology of speculative fiction tells stories of history altered, forgotten, and misreported. Among the rest is my own short story “The Fulcrum.” In “The Fulcrum,” the military – having expended its pound of cure – turns to the ounce of prevention, and launches a time-travel operation to ensure that the war they lost never happens.

Hidden Histories is available on Amazon. For further information, drop by Goodreads or Third Flatiron Publishing.

Grand Finale Blitz: Through the White Wood


On Tour with Prism Book Tours

Book Tour Grand Finale for
Through the White Wood
By Jessica Leake

We hope you enjoyed the tour! If you missed any of the stops
you’ll find snippets, as well as the link to each full post, below:

Launch – Note from the Author

Hi everyone! I am so excited to share my latest book, Through the White Wood, with you. I have always loved Russian folktales—there’s just something about such fantastical (and often creepy) characters set against a winter backdrop of snow and towering trees that I’ve always found so compelling. . .

Caffeine Addled Ramblings – Review & Interview

TTWW is the kind of book that keeps you wanting more in the best ways possible.”

G: Speaking of the psychology of characters, we discover early on that Katya isn’t the only one in the book with powers, so how do you choose which powers belong to whom? And does that have anything to do with their personalities at all?

J: It does have a lot to do with their personalities. The reason I chose earth for Grigory is a bit of a spoiler, so I won’t mention it here, but Ivan has the power to negate others’ abilities because he’s sort of the “protector” of the group. For Boris, I thought it would be funny for this guy who loves cooking so much to be a fearsome fighter with superhuman strength. And Kharan was just made for the assassin/spy role.

Hallie Reads – Review

“A story of friendship, magic, romance, and danger, Through the White Wood is fast-paced, engaging, and fun. I love how Leake pulled me into the story and made me care about these characters and what would happen. It’s definitely an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it to fantasy lovers.”

Wishful Endings – Review

“I thoroughly enjoyed this story from beginning to end! With the rich setting, magical aspects, character development, a motley crew, and romance, there’s not much more readers can ask for. I’m looking forward to more from this author!”

Adventures Thru Wonderland – Review

“Katya and Sasha are each so fun to read about, and I loved seeing them face the challenges and dangers in this story. Giving some strong ‘Ice Queen/Frozen’ vibes, but I loved the classic inspirations used in this story, and really enjoyed the direction Jessica takes [in] this one!”

Dazzled by Books – Review

“Jessica Leake did it again! Through the White Wood is absolutely amazing. This woman knows how to write. If you have not picked up her books, you totally should. She brings such a rich tale to her readers. I just can’t get enough.”

Bibliobibuli YA – Excerpt

There are countless monsters in this world. Some with fangs, some who skitter in the darkness just out of sight, some who wear human skin but whose hearts have turned dark as forest shadows.

And as my fellow villagers dragged me, bound by rough rope, from the cellar of the elder, I knew that these men and women I’d grown up with—they thought of me as a monster, too.

I wasn’t sure they were wrong.

Moonlight Rendezvous – Review

Through the White Wood was a beautifully written story with rich descriptions, a strong heroine and a storyline that is bound to sweep you away. . . . This story was thought-provoking and enchanting, keeping me entertained until the very last page. Ms. Leake is a very talented writer and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.”

The Reading Corner for All – Review

“In this impactful return to Jessica Leake’s imagination, prepare yourself for a journey. . . . Through the White Wood upheld the integrity of Russian and Slavic folklore through Leake’s narrative interpretation that transports readers to a time where legends flourished among men and magic was a means of unlocking the greatest triumphs of the human spirit. . . . this outstanding read must have a reserved spot on your reading corner.”

Bookwyrming Thoughts – Review

“I enjoyed Through the White Wood! I liked seeing Katya’s constant struggle of whether or not she’s a monster and her journey to discover who she is. . . . Jessica Leake’s latest novel is a solid story for those who enjoy a slower-paced book with historical and folklore elements woven together.”

Book Slaying – Review

“. . . I enjoyed Through the White Wood. . . . now that I know that Jessica Leake excels at world-building and folklore-researching. . .”

Bookish Looks – Review

“It is a read full of magic, romance, and friendships. I adored the folklore and just wanted more. I look forward to seeing what else Leake has in store.”

A Book Addict’s Bookshelves – Excerpt

Then, without another word, he climbed into the driver’s seat, gathered the reins, and pulled us away from the only home I’d ever known, of a prince they said was a monster.

But then, they said I was one, too.

I promised myself I wouldn’t look back, but I did it anyway, squinting through the snow at the thirty-seven villagers who silently watched me leave. It was easy to note the ones who were missing. While the ones who remained stared at me accusingly, I reached down to rub at my wrists where the ropes had once bound them.

onemused – Review

“. . . this was an engaging and fascinating read that consumed my YA fantasy-loving heart. This book is great for lovers of magic, YA fantasy and adventure, and fairytale retellings. I would definitely love to meet these characters again in future books.”

NovelKnight – Review

“. . . the blend of folklore with fiction, all while giving the feel of a magical history that our records forgot. On that front, I think this book excelled. This was a world I wanted to explore further, beyond Katya’s story. . .”

Read and Wander – Review

“I was absolutely captivated. Jessica Leake is such a wonderful storyteller and once again, she brings to life a magical world inspired by Russian mythology. . . . Through the White Wood was a breathtaking, mesmerizing and sometimes gut wrenching adventure. There were so many great characters, some twists and we even got to see our favorites, Ciara and Leif, from Beyond a Darkened Shore. I really hope that we get more stories in this world. I definitely recommend reading anything Jessica Leake writes at this point.”

everywhere and nowhere – Excerpt

After the horror of what had happened in the village, it was almost difficult to be afraid of what awaited me with the prince. Almost, but not quite. Rumors hammered at my thoughts as the sleigh traveled farther and farther into the deep woods that surrounded my home.

People disappearing into his castle, never to return. People with abilities beyond human limits. People like me.

Worse still was the knowledge that I went to him having committed crimes whose punishment was death.

A Dream Within A Dream – Review

Through the White Wood is a thrilling young adult historical fantasy that will have readers begging for more. Although it’s technically the second in the series, you can read this without reading the first book without any problems or confusion. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going in, but at the end it exceeded anything I could’ve hoped for.”

BookCrushin – Excerpt

We traveled ever farther into the woods, the trees towering above us, snow clinging to their piney branches. I watched animals flee from the oncoming sleigh—birds flitting from tree to tree, squirrels chattering reproachfully, even a fox and hare interrupted from a deadly chase.

I imagined myself jumping down into the snow and escaping into those woods, and I went so far as to shift closer to the edge of my seat. I glanced down at the ground, moving so quickly beneath us. I could jump now, but would I manage to stay on my feet? If I stumbled, I risked serious injury. Still, wouldn’t it be worth it to try rather than be brought before the prince like a lamb to slaughter?

I moved still closer to the edge, gathering my skirt in one hand. I glanced at Ivan, but he continued to face forward.

HelloJennyReviews – Review

Through the White Wood by Jessica Leake is the brilliantly told story of Katya and Sasha, an orphaned village girl and a prince. . . . after reading this book I can say I am absolutely adding her to my auto-buy author’s list. The author writes very vivid and beautiful stories with such amazing characters and worlds that it’s impossible to not fall in love.”

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway at the end of this post, if you haven’t already…

Through the White Wood
By Jessica Leake
Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Hardcover & ebook, 416 Pages
April 9th 2019 by HarperTeen

The Bear and the Nightingale meets Frostblood in this romantic historical fantasy from the author of Beyond a Darkened Shore.

When Katya loses control of her power to freeze, her villagers banish her to the palace of the terrifying Prince Sasha in Kiev.

Expecting punishment, she is surprised to find instead that Sasha is just like her—with the ability to summon fire. Sasha offers Katya friendship and the chance to embrace her power rather than fear it.

But outside the walls of Kiev, Sasha’s enemies are organizing an army of people bent on taking over the entire world.

Together, Katya’s and Sasha’s powers are a fearsome weapon. But as their enemies draw nearer, will fire and frost be enough to save the world? Or will Katya and Sasha lose everything they hold dear?

Inspired by Russian mythology, this lushly romantic, intensely imaginative, and fiercely dramatic story is about learning to fight for yourself, even when the world is falling down around you.

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Other Books in the Series

Beyond a Darkened Shore

By Jessica Leake

Young Adult Historical Fantasy

Hardcover & ebook, 384 Pages

April 10th 2018 by HarperTeen

The ancient land of Éirinn is mired in war. Ciara, princess of Mide, has never known a time when Éirinn’s kingdoms were not battling for power, or Northmen were not plundering their shores.

The people of Mide have always been safe because of Ciara’s unearthly ability to control her enemies’ minds and actions. But lately a mysterious crow has been appearing to Ciara, whispering warnings of an even darker threat. Although her clansmen dismiss her visions as pagan nonsense, Ciara fears this coming evil will destroy not just Éirinn but the entire world.

Then the crow leads Ciara to Leif, a young Northman leader. Leif should be Ciara’s enemy, but when Ciara discovers that he, too, shares her prophetic visions, she knows he’s something more. Leif is mounting an impressive army, and with Ciara’s strength in battle, the two might have a chance to save their world.

With evil rising around them, they’ll do what it takes to defend the land they love…even if it means making the greatest sacrifice of all.

Praise for the Book

Beyond a Darkened Shore is thrilling and romantic. This is a must-read for lovers of fantasy, mythology, and folklore.” – Kody Keplinger, New York Times bestselling author of The DUFF and Run

“With undead armies, flesh-eating spirit horses, and a powerful heroine, fantasy, romance, and historical-fiction readers will have a great time.” – Booklist

“While Morrigan and Odin are terrifying, raven-haired Ciara is the star. Beautiful, strong, and independent, she is the perfect warrior princess. Epic historical fantasy filled with deadly creatures, simmering romance, and nonstop action.” – Kirkus Reviews

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About the Author

Jessica Leake is the author of Beyond a Darkened Shore as well as the adult novels Arcana and The Order of the Eternal Sun. She lives in South Carolina with her husband, four young children, lots of chickens, and two dogs who keep everyone in line. Visit her at www.jessicaleake.com.

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Tour Giveaway

2 winners will receive a copy of Through the White Wood (US only)
1 winner will receive a $25 Amazon eGift Card (open internationally)
Ends April 17th

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News: Hidden Histories

It is my pleasure to announce that my story “The Fulcrum” will be published next month in Hidden Histories, a Third Flatiron Anthology (they’ve published many!). Hidden Histories is devoted to the fascinating theme of history changed, hidden, or forgotten. Twenty-eight stories will be published in the anthology, running the SFF gauntlet from science fiction to fantasy to horror – with some flash humor thrown in.

My contribution is “The Fulcrum,” which tells of a military operation to infiltrate the past and erase events that triggered a disastrous war. It’s an exercise of sci-fi geekery and history geekery, and I hope you all have as much fun with it as I did. I would love to delve into my speculations and research snags – but I will wait for the release date.

Hidden Histories is available for pre-order on Amazon. Those of you with an eye for a good bargain can consider pledging on Patreon, where you can get a yearly subscription to Third Flatiron for $1 a month (yearly subscription = 3-4 e-books). But if you like free books and you like to write about books …

I’ve got an offer for you. Third Flatiron is offering review copies. A personal blog is not necessary – you can post your review on Goodreads or Amazon (or both!). If you’re interested, contact me at info@shannonmcdermott.com, and I will put you in touch with the publisher.

Release date is April 15 – a dark day, I know, but here’s a ray of sunshine. See you then!

A Time For Generosity

The Authors Guild has announced that, as a curative to writers’ falling incomes, it will champion a national Public Lending Right program. The President’s Letter didn’t lay out the details, and PLR programs vary in their particulars (thirty-five countries already possess some version of it). The essential idea, however, is that public libraries will pay authors for the loaning out of their books. It’s a kind of royalty payment: a little money every time a book is checked out, with a cap on how much any one author can receive. For a factual examination of PLR, drop by the Steve Laube Agency blog. For a strongly-worded opinion, stay here.

Now, the benefit of this program is that authors make more money. The downside is that that money has to come from somewhere or, rather, from someone. The Authors Guild proposes the classic solution to this age-old problem: a federal government program. They are advocating (I must quote this) “creating a new government entitlement program.” The idea that Congress would create an entitlement program solely for published authors is touchingly ingenuous. The Authors Guild should consider – I suggest it with gentleness – that it is not a national issue that authors would like to make more money. Everyone else would, too.

The point of a federal PLR program is to shift costs from local governments, which are often poor, to the federal government, which is also broke but possesses nuclear weapons and therefore can be trillions of dollars in the red. This is unlikely to happen, but even if it does, it is still only shifting the cost. The inevitable result of any PLR program will be to increase the cost of public libraries. The ALA estimates that Americans check out an average of eight books per year, a number we can extrapolate to 2.6 billion books checked out per year. If public libraries must pay a fee every time a patron checks out a book – even a fee measured in pennies – the annual cost will be tens of millions. At the princely royalty of four cents per loan, the cost will top 100 million. (This will be multiplied again if – and why shouldn’t this happen? – Hollywood and musicians decide to get in on the game and libraries must make payments for CDs and DVDs, too.)

People talk glibly of raising taxes and government entitlement programs. But you cannot charge the public library system millions to loan out their existing collections and expect that library services will never be reduced.

So the costs of the PLR will be borne by the public. But there will be costs for authors to pay, too. Make libraries in general, and library books in particular, more costly, and it’s only a matter of time before someone lights upon the expedient of fewer library books. The least established authors will find the raised bar hardest to clear, and the consequence of making the system more profitable for some authors may be to push others out of the system entirely.

I am sympathetic to writers struggling to make their work profitable. It’s certainly true that readers should have a spirit of generosity toward writers. But there is also a time for writers to be generous to their readers. Public libraries exist for the public, especially the less well-off public: seniors on fixed incomes, families with small children, adults getting by, voracious young readers whose parents can’t afford all the books they want. It is already profitable for authors. Even authors should have concerns beyond making it even more profitable yet.

The Saving Mystery

Last time I came by this way, I talked about Coco‘s demoralizing portrait of the afterlife and how it casts a pall over the movie. Today, I want to move that discussion to a more general question of how the afterlife ought to be portrayed in fiction. My concern is not the gate to heaven or the road to hell, the broad and the narrow way; I am thinking of the much slighter question of what glimpses should be given of the afterlife, including the secondhand glimpses that come through ghosts or other denizens of the spiritual world.

The first thing to say is that we don’t really know what the next world looks like (which complicates creating glimpses of it!). We know what truly matters – eternal good or eternal bad, reward or punishment, God or the devil. Yet these abstractions are not translated into the concrete, except in the visions of Revelation. To what extent the fire and harps and gold are symbols of final destiny, or actual components of it, is a point of theological debate. Even the literal interpretation would leave us mostly with images of the New Jerusalem, which is not quite synonymous with Heaven. By any interpretation, the next world is mostly unknown – and unimaginable.

And fiction rushes in where theologians would fear to tread. It is easier for storytellers, you know: No portrait of the afterlife can truly be the way it is, but such literal truth is not their game anyway. Writers take two different avenues to spinning out visions of the afterlife. The first is that of symbolism; the concrete pictures represent abstract truths. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis painted Hell as a city of empty streets sprawling out for thousands of miles in order to express the idea that the willful self-isolation of sin is consummated in Hell. Twilight Zone‘s “Nothing in the Dark” personifies Death as a handsome young man to convey the idea that death is not a monster in the dark. In works like these, the presentation of the unknowable is true in the only way it can be – as a symbol.

Not all writers have such elevated aims. Those interested in a good story, and not transcendent spiritual truths, take the second avenue. Putting aside the quest to tell the truth about the next life, some writers take happy license to invent whatever is most expedient to plot twists, world-building, or thrills. Coco is an unusually elaborate example of this. Ghost stories provide a broad array of more simple instances. Consider the popular trope of ghosts who linger to finish some item of business, or say goodbye, or even to simply realize that they’re dead. The tellers of such stories don’t necessarily believe that dead people remain on earth seeking closure. In fact, I would wager that most of them don’t, and some don’t believe in the immortality of the soul at all. There is no actual attempt, in many stories of the afterlife, to express any truth of whatever lies on the other side of death.

Yet there is, implicit in most of these stories, a sense of journey and a sense of mystery. We don’t know where the ghosts are going when they are finally ready to leave, but they are going somewhere; we don’t know what happens when the twilight over the city of empty streets ends, or where Death is leading the old woman. Many stories affect to peer through the great veil of death, but few pretend to tear it down. We are ignorant even in our stories, and in that ignorance is mystery, and in that mystery is hope.

That is the mistake that Coco makes: It doesn’t have the saving sense of mystery, the sense of journey that could have redeemed the dreariness of the Land of the Dead. This, then, is the cardinal rule for writers who wish to tread into the next world: Leave the mystery. Never pretend to tell all.

A Girl and Her Father

Of all biblical stories, Esther is among the best-known and most retold. There is good reason for this. It is a complete and satisfying tale, with peril and victory, with an underdog who wins, a villain who gets his comeuppance, and a brave, beautiful heroine. Its attraction is enormous, but a curious pattern emerges among the re-tellings. Even while staying faithful to the facts of the story, many re-tellings shift the dramatic and emotional center from Esther and Mordecai to Esther and Xerxes. The story of Esther is commonly told as a romance, but in the Bible, the relationship that matters most is the one between Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai were cousins, but their relationship is defined by the fact that Mordecai adopted Esther after her parents died, taking her in and raising her. (Somewhat-irrelevant side note: This phenomenon – family members of the same generation but of vast age differences – occurred more frequently in ancient times than in modern, for various reasons.) Mordecai was, in effect, Esther’s father. This relationship drives forward the story: Mordecai’s concern for Esther leads to his vigils at the palace gate, through which he both saves the king’s life and incurs Haman’s animosity; it is Mordecai who explains to Esther (cloistered in the palace) the plot to annihilate the Jews and persuades her to act; Mordecai and Esther together save the Jews and later establish the celebration of Purim.

Esther and Mordecai are also at the heart of the story’s spiritual and emotional power. Esther commands the fasting and prayer in preparation of her bid to save the Jews; Mordecai makes the immortal statement that she became queen “for such a time as this.” It is their lives, their family, and their people brought beneath the shadow of ruthless slaughter. It is their relationship – and emphatically not the relationship between Esther and Xerxes – that is demonstrated to be one of mutual affection: Mordecai walked in a courtyard of the palace every day to find out how Esther was after the king’s officials took her; Esther was “in great distress” at the news of Mordecai’s distress.

Esther’s relationship with Xerxes was, of course, marriage – but marriage to a despot of ancient Persia, and that is a very qualified thing. He practiced, and pretended, no sexual fidelity toward her; consider that he slept with all her rivals for the queenship and then kept them as concubines within his palace. It is evident, too, that Xerxes and Esther didn’t really live together. They only visited at such times when Xerxes wished it – and he could go whole months without wishing it. No detail more sharply illuminates their relationship than the fact that Esther was deathly afraid to go to Xerxes without his summons. In the pivotal moment, Xerxes treated her with regard, but to the end their interactions were those of an absolute sovereign and a favored inferior. Esther was Xerxes’ queen more than she was his wife (though that also, to be fair, had its privileges). It should be noted, too, that Xerxes was an alien to the spiritual concerns of Mordecai and Esther and wholly safe from the death that threatened both of them. Xerxes is an ambivalent figure at best, and a hero on no consideration.

Why, then, do interpretations of the story so often fix on the supposed romance between Esther and Xerxes? The answer is simple, a truth that has long frustrated readers who prefer fantastical stories: People would rather hear about romance. To many people, a romantic relationship – even one as distant and asymmetrical as the marriage of a Persian despot and his queen – is inherently more interesting than a father-daughter relationship, even if it saves a nation from genocide.